THE expected decision of the United Nations to dispatch armed forces to help feed hungry Somalis is likely to have wide implications as the international community wrestles with other humanitarian crises around the world.
"Any significant UN military intervention will raise the general issue of whether to intervene for humanitarian purposes, with or without local permission, to a new level of salience and immediacy," says David Smock, a senior program officer at the United States Institute of Peace.
"If the UN force gets sucked into a morass, the international community will think twice before it commits itself again," Mr. Smock says. "If the operation is a marvelous success, that will also have an impact on future action."
At press time yesterday, the UN Security Council was working out the final details of a resolution to dispatch a large multinational army to Somalia to deliver food to tens of thousands of famine victims. President Bush has committed up to 20,000 US troops to the force, which would be under American command. The first contingent of 1,800 US marines arrived off the coast of Somalia yesterday.
The international force's main task will be to ward off armed gangs that have been stealing an estimated 75 percent of relief supplies shipped to Somalia. Some 12,000 tons of food are now bottled up in warehouses at the port of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, says Catherine Bertine, executive director of the UN's World Food Programme.
No strangers to Africa, UN troops got bloodied there during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, helping the former Belgian Congo (now Zaire) beat back a secessionist movement. UN observers and peacekeepers, respectively, have been deployed in Angola and Western Sahara.
But until the Somali crisis, no international force has been deployed in Africa to deliver relief supplies to prevent starvation. None has been dispatched before without the consent of local authorities. Nor have US ground troops been deployed in Africa since the end of World War II, except for training exercises.
The reluctance of the US to intervene has been overcome by the sheer scale of the crisis. According to relief groups, Somalis are perishing at an estimated rate of 1,000 per day, with a total of 2 million now at risk.
Three hundred thousand have already died of starvation and disease since groups that coalesced to overthrow longtime Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991 fell into factional fighting.
"You go on with a situation hoping somehow things will get better," says a State Department official who has served in Africa. "With still no prospect of that happening, you eventually say to yourself, either you go in with significantly more force from the international community or you sit on your hands while thousands of people die."
AS officials are eager not to set a precedent that would create pressure to intervene in crises in other nations, such as Bosnia, Sudan, and Liberia. "It's a concern, but our defense would be that every situation would be considered on the merits," the official says.
Responding to the sensitivities of African nations, which for generations were ruled by colonial powers, the Security Council has retained oversight responsibilities for the force in the draft-enabling resolution.
The first military units could land in Somalia as early as today. Although little resistance is expected, they could use force, if needed, to secure ports, airfields, and other strategic positions that are entry points for relief shipments. The rules of engagement governing US troops who are fired upon have not been defined.
White House officials express hope that US troops can be pulled out by Jan. 20, the last day of President Bush's term. An infrastructure can be erected quickly to get food supplies where they are needed, one administration source says. It could then be maintained by the much smaller force of 3,500 already authorized by the UN; this force does not include US participation.
But Pentagon sources say the task of securing ports and airfields, supply lines and food distribution centers, could take far longer. Which prediction proves the more accurate may depend on whether withdrawal is linked to progress toward a political solution in Somalia.
US officials first called for the UN to install an interim government in Somalia, then backed away from the idea. But many experts say that unless a stable government is erected in Somalia there will be no end to the anarchy which has become the major contributor to the food crisis.
They cite the case of Namibia, a trusteeship which the UN guided to independence and which is now a stable democracy. They also point to the negative example of Iraq, which still preoccupies the UN because President Saddam Hussein remains in power.
"The lesson of Iraq is that we ought to think through what the root problem is so we don't have to go in again on a more costly basis," says Pauline Baker, an Africa expert at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.
According to news reports, the Central Intelligence Agency has also advised Bush that restoring order in Somalia could require an extended international presence, possibly including a UN protectorate. Bush discussed the Somali operation with President-elect Clinton on Wednesday by telephone and is to meet with congressional leaders at the White House today.